The Solace of St. John’s

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Less than 75 miles from the Twin Cities, St. John’s Abbey is a world away from the frenzied hassle of daily life. Following tenets laid down nearly 1,500 years ago, the monks lead lives of work and prayer and leave a door open to pilgrims of all sorts

Nearly 1,500 years ago near Rome, a Christian ascetic named Benedict founded an order of monks.

He wrote a simple, well-thought-out set of rules about how the monks should live together and conduct themselves in the abbey.

Among the rules is this one: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

About 1,500 years later, I presented myself at a Benedictine monastery 75 miles northwest of my home in St. Paul on a cold, gray November Monday. The 95-book called “The Rule of Benedict” is still in force; the welcome was as he wrote it.

The Rev. Francis Hoefgen, the soft-spoken, smiling guest master of St. John’s Abbey, shook my hand, escorted me to my room, and said: “Get settled in. I’ll bring you to noon prayer.”

Seekers

In coming to St. John’s, I was doing as pilgrims have done for hundreds of years: seeking to balance the tumult of the secular world with the solace of a monastery, a place with the solitude and silence one needs to think, pray or simply rest.

It’s an old tradition that’s gaining new followers; Kathleen Norris’ popular books about her experiences in monasteries (“Dakota” and “The Cloister Walk”) have been followed by the publication of guidebooks, telling travelers about monasteries, abbeys and retreat centers open to visitors.

Most of them – St. John’s included – charge a nominal fee for room and board that is well below what a chain motel costs. But unlike a motel, St. John’s Abbey is on 2,500 acres of forested land that embraces a college campus, the world’s largest collection of medieval manuscripts on microfilm, a publishing house and a bakery, among other things.

As close as St. John’s is to the Twin Cities, it was foreign territory. I’m not Catholic, and while I’ve visited dozens of Buddhist and Hindu monasteries in Asia, I had never been in a Christian one in America.

But what brought me to St. John’s was the same thing that piqued my interest about the monasteries in Asia: an interest in people who have time and silence in their lives, who have forsworn material goods and sexual relationships to dedicate themselves to thinking about the world, the divine and their relationships with both.

I am not naive; I didn’t expect that I’d cure all my disassociations or perfect my relationship with the divine in four days. But I did want to learn about St. John’s, and, in the process, see what I’d find.

Prayer

Hoefgen knocked lightly on my door a half-hour later. We turned down two hallways and entered the cathedral – a masterpiece of modern architecture designed by Marcel Breuer and completed in 1961.

We sat in the guest area in the pews, which are arrayed in a semicircle facing a massive, honeycombed wall of stained glass. It acts as a sieve of light, filtering rays of color into the cavernous, gray interior.

A few monks were already seated. Others came down the center aisle. Some young, some old. Some wore robes, others wore jeans and sweaters or suits and ties. The monks were mostly white, but there were black and Asian monks, too. Also in our number were women, children and farmers in seed caps – the daily prayers are open to all.

The muted sounds of shuffling feet and books being opened filled the air. Then, silence as the service began. The three daily prayers are centered on the Psalms, which are read at each service.

There was no sermon, just our voices in call and response, punctuated by long silences between each hymn or Psalm.

I found myself reading aloud – with feeling – words written and spoken thousands of years ago. Open the Bible to the Psalms and you find human voices speaking of heart-rending losses or glorious victories with passionate anger and overflowing joy.

“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept/ when we remembered Zion./ There on the poplars/ we hung our harps,/ for there our captors asked us for songs,/ our tormentors demanded songs of joy./ . . . How can we sing the songs of the Lord/while in a foreign land?”

The space of the unadorned, concrete cathedral – which seemed so stark in the silence before the reading – drew the words out of our mouths; the space grew baroque with the music of language. It was a sweet, longing sound, our voices resurrecting the miseries and hopes of a people on another continent in a different age.

Soul tourists

After the prayer, Hoefgen joined me in the guest dining room for lunch.

An unimposing man of 46 years, he wore a thick brown sweater adorned with a silver crucifix. He had thinning hair, a broad black mustache and an easy, sincere smile. When he spoke, he chose his words carefully. When he listened, he focused intently.

I asked if he had any suggestions about how I should spend my time: What does one do on retreat?

He said he usually tells people not to set up a lot of expectations or demands. The shock of going from a daily life of constant input and interruption into one of quiet solitude and prayerful ritual can be enough to deal with.

“Sometimes people don’t realize how tired they are until they get here,” he said. “Then they sleep for the first day or two.

“I tell them to give themselves the gift of solitude. Take a walk in the woods. Sit down by the lake. See what happens. Inevitably, something does.”

I asked him if going on retreat had become more popular. He said it had – the abbey’s guest rooms are often booked weeks in advance – and he mentioned that Kathleen Norris’ books “Dakota” and “The Cloister Walk” have created an awareness and curiosity about monastic life. “Cloister Walk” is largely Norris’ experiences at St. John’s Abbey during two extended residencies there.

“I always ask people who call how they found out about us,” he said, “but I never know what they’re going to say.

“One woman called from Green Bay wanting to stay, and I asked her where she heard about us. ‘I’m embarrassed to say,’ she said, ‘but I read about it in Glamour magazine.’

“I saw the article later,” Hoefgen said. “It was an article about places where women could get away from it all. They described the abbey as a ‘spiritual spa.’ ”

We both laughed. Fifteen hundred years after Benedict set down his rule, he’s trendy.

The narrow path

True to Hoefgen’s words, I was more tired than I thought. Without a TV or radio, I ended up falling asleep by 8 p.m. and not waking up until 12 hours later.

My ground-level room was simple – concrete brick walls painted off-white, hardwood floors, a modern wooden desk, two single, unadorned beds. It was the size of a dorm or small motel room. Granite bookends propped up a few religious books on the desk. The north wall of the room was glass, which made me feel disconcertingly exposed at first.

When I imagined going on retreat at a monastery, I envisioned a dark, grotto-like room in the woods with a candle and a Bible for diversion. Maybe one small window through which I could contemplate the mysteries.

This wall of glass let the whole community into my room. One side of the view was dominated by the entrance to the Great Hall – St. John’s old cathedral. On the other rose the massive concrete banner that fronts the new cathedral. Students and monks walked by on their way to classes or work.

In the guest dining room, I ate Grape Nuts and a banana by myself while eavesdropping on a priest at a different table as he told a story about falling asleep at the wheel and skidding into a ditch.

I went back to my room, put on some boots and headed into the woods that surround the abbey. Light fog had descended.

I walked along the original St. John’s entrance road to the Stone Gate, which once marked the entrance to the abbey. I passed through it onto an empty, quiet footpath.

The thick forest is made up of many varieties of hardwoods – oaks, basswood, ash, maple – along with several stands of pine planted by the monks, who first came here in 1856. The tangle of trees was reduced to simpler terms by the fog, which rendered everything into shades of gray, except for the ground, freshly covered with fallen leaves in various shades of brown and gold.

It was cool but not cold. The trees without leaves became other things entirely. Hands, legs, twisted bodies. A knot in a birch tree stared back at me like a wise eye.

It was an aimless walk, and I didn’t see another soul, but my conversations with myself followed the steady falling of my feet, one after another.

I couldn’t escape the metaphors in what I was seeing. When the trail disappeared into the fog, it recalled Buddhist and Christian warnings about the difficulties of “the narrow path.” It seemed a fitting symbol for a soul searching; we’re lucky if we get to see that much – a trail in the fog – to provide direction.

Work and pray

As I got to know St. John’s better, I began to feel the familiarity that makes a place seem like home. I didn’t want to hide in my room; the big window seemed less and less like an invasion of privacy and more and more like a connection to a comfortable community where I was welcome.

On the first day at St. John’s, I found myself daunted by the silence: I hear people’s voices, the noise of cars, music, advertisements all day, every day. From the moment the clock radio wakes me up until I turn off the news before bed, there are constant diversions.

It took a couple of days until all those voices – and the need for them – dissipated, and then I found the silence peaceful and interesting. It made room around each interaction – be it the prayer services, a conversation, something I’d read – to think about it, to appreciate it, to be grateful for it.

My days fit neatly into the rhythm of life in the abbey. I got up in time for morning prayer at 7 a.m., and with a good dose of the anger, passion and joy of the Psalms, was wide awake by the time I sat down for breakfast. I went for walks, I read, I worked, taking photos and interviewing people at the monastery. I learned about St. Benedict, whose presence is strong at St. John’s.

As much as is possible, the monks live according to “The Rule of St. Benedict.” He set down his ideas on communal living during a tumultuous time and place: Rome in the Sixth Century. The crumbling empire was besieged by enemies on many sides. Little is known of Benedict’s life. He lived for a time as a hermit in a cave outside Rome; he had a religious epiphany, and he founded this order of Christian monks. He left behind a few writings, most importantly “The Rule.”

While some of the harsher dictates have been modified (monks can have some personal possessions, for example, and they no longer sleep all in one place – they have their own rooms), other rules stand. For example, most of the monks still take a turn at helping to serve meals.

During meals, the monks eat in silence while one brother reads aloud, as Benedict instructed. But nowadays the reading isn’t always from the Bible. Hoefgen invited me to dine in the cloister twice, and during the time I was there, a monk was reading from Norris’ “Cloister Walk.”

The silence was broken by laughter more than once during the chapter headlined “Monks and Women,” which begins: “It is, of course, a tangled history.”

Scribes

In 1,500 years, some traditions have transmogrified in interesting ways. One can be witnessed at the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library.

The director of the library, the Rev. Eric Hollas, said that in the early days of the abbeys, before the invention of movable type, religious writings had to be copied by hand. Many brothers worked as scribes, copying sacred texts into calfskin books and illustrating them with intricate, colorful paintings (hence the term “illuminated manuscripts”).

Hollas and the library staff are continuing that work in a sense, by microfilming illuminated manuscripts stored in European monasteries and archives. When I was at St. John’s, the library had teams at work microfilming manuscripts in Malta and Switzerland. Since its inception in 1965, library staff members have filmed more than 85,000 volumes; they are working on making them available online.

It’s part of the continuity that Benedictines seek, Hollas said, working to save the labor of their brothers in antiquity. What those brothers did in the past, copying texts by hand, Hollas and his crew do now with modern techniques, copying manuscripts onto microfilm and CD-ROMs.

“Our goal was to make sure that if there’s another cataclysm like World War II, there’d be a place these writings could survive,” Hollas said.

Pottery

Another place to see the ethic of St. John’s at work is in the pottery studio, where Richard Bresnahan – who is not a monk, but a sort of artist-in-residence – crafts museum-quality ceramics.

He sees his studio, tucked into a ground-level brick building on the edge of campus, as a place to educate people. If you want to buy one of his teapots, cups or vases, you’ll hear him or one of his apprentices talk about how it was made and the ideas behind it.

While working on a bowl at a potter’s wheel, Bresnahan explained how his work is connected to the patterns of nature. His students harvest clay, clean and process it themselves. They make glazes out of plant ash – sunflower, flax straw, navy bean straw. The cells that gave the plants their color are still there, and the elements reemerge through the heat of the kiln.

“Ninety-five percent of the work is preparation, and having respect for the materials provided,” Bresnahan said. The work at the potter’s wheel and in the kiln are just the finishing touches.

He doesn’t hide his contempt for industrially processed clay and chemical glazes. He describes them as wasteful products of a soulless system. “They have no relationship to the food that will go in the pot.”

By making all the ingredients of the pot, and being familiar with the whole process, from digging clay to cutting wood to fire the giant kiln across the road, Bresnahan and his students connect with a broader cycle, he said. “If you don’t have a deep regard for the environment, how can you have any regard for yourself or anyone else?”

Bresnahan, a graduate of St. John’s, described how Benedictines value stewardship of resources, self-sufficiency and a view toward future generations; those qualities have made his studio a good fit at the abbey.

When he asked the monastery to fund the harvest of a 300-year supply of good-quality clay from an abandoned roadway, it agreed.

“The Benedictines have been here for 1,500 years – they don’t get all panicked every time there’s a crisis,” he said. “So to them, acquiring 300 years’ worth of clay doesn’t seem all that odd.”

Souvenir of solitude

On my last day at the abbey, I visited Father Fran Hoefgen one last time, in his small basement office. The room was covered with framed photographs that he’d taken in places as close as the woods near the abbey and as far away as the Holy Land.

I told him how nervous I’d been on the first day about silence and solitude, and how relaxed and clear-minded I felt four days later. I said I’d probably be back.

He again talked about the shock of going from the frenzy of secular life to the relative solitude of the monastery.

“People are forced to rely on their own resources. That’s often hard.

“As monks, we realize that if we’re not comfortable with ourselves in solitude, then it’s no wonder that other people are not comfortable with us, either.”

I asked him what kind of responses he normally gets from people on retreat for the first time.

“Gratitude,” he said, and paused. “The gift they take away with them is some peace. And all we do is provide a place where they can open themselves up and find it.”

The Solace of St. John’s
By Chris Welsch
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN)
October 19, 1997

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